Ordinary People by Diana Evans
Published by Liveright on September 11, 2018
my rating: ★★★★
Goodreads avg: 3.32 (as of 2019-03-24)
Diana Evans, author of the prize-winning 26a, returns with an intimate portrait of London, an exploration of modern relationships and black identity, and that mid-life moment when a gap emerges between who we think we are and who we are becoming.
Melissa and Michael, a couple of thirteen years, have taken up residence in a crooked house in the south of the city, a new baby making them a family of four. Feeling defined solely by motherhood, Melissa’s need to reclaim her identity is spilling into resentment at her partner and a growing fear that something unnatural is living in their home. Her solace in her Nigerian mother’s stews and spells only infuriates Michael, who desperately misses the excitement of their lives before children.
Further south, in the suburbs, Damian and Stephanie enter a year of marital disquiet. Damian’s Trinidadian political activist father has died, and he finds himself adrift and hungering for the city–just as his admiration for Stephanie’s wholesome aspirations and white middle class upbringing begin to feel more like a trap than an escape. With the election of Barack Obama posing a distant perfection to which modern couples might aspire, these two ordinary partnerships collide and conjoin in a building chaos born from their extraordinary desires.
Ordinary People is an intimate, immersive study of identity and parenthood, sex and grief, friendship and aging, and the fragile architecture of love. With its distinctive prose and addictive soundtrack, it is the story of our lives, and those moments that threaten to unravel us.
I barely know where to begin with this review! Ordinary People is my first official (aka intentional) Women’s Prize Longlist read. I chose to start with it for one simple reason: it was available at the library. I truly didn’t know what to expect, as I went in without reading the blurb or any reviews — daring, I know. What I got was a quietly beautiful examination of love and relationships.
Before Melissa met Michael, her attitude towards men was one of indifference. They were strange and hungry beings. They had strange bodies. They wanted things.
The writing took a bit for me to adjust to, as it’s not my usual fare. It had a rather meandering approach that was somewhat dreamy in nature. There was a lot of gazing into the past, explaining how the characters got to be where they are now. It took me for a bit of a turn; I’d expect a brief sidebar, maybe a paragraph or two of background regarding the situation at hand, and would instead get a deep dive that seemed irrelevant in some ways. As I got used to it, I found these histories relaxing, a reprieve from the conflicts the present day versions of these characters were dealing with.
“Do you think, sometimes,” she asked Simon, “that people who like each other are not meant to touch each other?”
The book centers around two black couples: Michael and Melissa, and Damian and Stephanie. Michael and Melissa have recently had their second child. Michael misses the spark that their relationship used to hold, hungers for the woman he felt Melissa used to be. Melissa has lost any desire for Michael and instead feels trapped in her role as a mother, anxiety continuing to mount within her as the book progresses. On the other hand, Damian has recently lost his father and seems to be pulling away from his wife as he refuses to process his grief. Stephanie holds strong and is determined to keep their relationship afloat.
For the sake of love, for the sake of chocolate, for the sake of their children, she did what he wanted.
I’m not sure whether all the characters were meant to be equal, but Michael and Melissa certainly felt like the main characters to me. Melissa in particular drew my sympathy and interest. Michael seemed to think his problems were unbelievably important, but from my perspective they were inane compared to Melissa’s. I don’t know if it was intentional, or if I’m just sick of men who think the world revolves around them, but it did make for an interesting reading experience. I won’t get into it any further than that, or else I risk edging into spoiler territory.
He doesn’t belong to me. Fidelity is so overrated. I think it’s childish, the way people think of it.
Overall, I found it a really enjoyable read. It definitely made me feel quite grateful to be reading the Women’s Prize longlist, as this is something I absolutely would not have read on my own. I can only hope the rest of the books serve me equally well. Anyway, I recommend picking this one up if you’re looking for something introspective to pick up, but not if you’re looking for anything wildly exciting plot-wise, although I will argue that there were some very innovative bits. I may have to check out some more of Evans’ work, as she is quite an impressive writer.
More Women’s Prize 2019 Longlist reviews:
Lost Children Archive
Praise Song for the Butterflies
An American Marriage
My Sister, the Serial Killer
The Silence of the Girls